Today we leave Skoura for Ouarzazate to see the Kasbah Taourirt and the Atlas Film Studio where 'Kingdom of Heaven' was filmed. We'll log 200 miles today.
The roads leading in to Ouarzazate are lined with red flags. It turns out that we have arrived for the end of the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day footrace through the desert that starts and ends here. There's a festival at the end, with live dance music. We step out of our car just in time to see the last runner cross the finish line, a smiling, white bearded gentlemen preceded by a police escort and followed by an aid car, and met with applause from the jubilant crowd.
Across the street is the Kasbah Taourirt, originally a cross-point for African trade caravans enroute to North Africa and Europe. I get a few shots of the pre-WWI German Krupp cannon that sits outside the door, the property of the Pasha of Turkey during the French Occupation. We enter the palace and tour several of the 300 rooms, including the harem, kitchen, a reception room with French tile, and the royal apartments with their stunning cedar ceilings and carved and painted plasterwork. One of the more interesting details was a staircase that had irregular stairs - a defense against invaders who would lose speed trying to run up the uneven steps - and a room with bright red ceiling beams, which our guide told us had been painted that color for one of the many movies that had been filmed here. "Every film ever made in Morocco was filmed at this kasbah" our guide told us. He then rattled off an extensive list of films, and told us which ones he had been an extra in, which seemed to be nearly every movie on the list...
There's a gallery of local artists on one of the floors, which we tarry in for quite some time, admiring the paint and multi-media works that are for sale. While Mark and Catherine are selecting art pieces to add to their collection, I step outside into the courtyard for some additional photos. The cannon is now swarmed with a racing team, posing for their own group photos and selfies. I try to take shots of the patterned glass that is behind the grillwork on the outer doors. The guide catches up with me and explains that the window grills, now metal, were originally made from wood. The ornately carved and painted doors are Moorish, not Berber. He also said that many of the modern buildings in Morocco are built in the traditional style, or at least have some of the traditional elements like the little three or five brick pyramids at the corners of the roofs, because people prefer to keep the old styles. My photos of the Kasbah Taourirt are here.
Our next stop is the Atlas Film Studio. When Doug was first hashing out our itinerary, I had asked if we could take this 45 minute detour, so I could wave at the area where Kingdom of Heaven was filmed as we drove by. I was completely surprised and delighted when we pulled up to the gates of the studio, and were met by a guide who gave us a tour...
Atlas Studios is the second largest film studio in the world, behind Hollywood. It's film credits include Asterix, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Man Who Would Be King, Kundun, the Mummy Returns and Game of Thrones (Season 3).
The pink stucco front gate is flanked by Egyptian figures and Chinese Fu-dogs. Just inside the gate, in the parking lot, were a pair of Roman chariots and a reed boat on a trailer. We were escorted past a set where filming was taking place (King Tut we think), and into a dark hall of columns where Cleopatra was filmed. We walked along the back of a set, supported by scaffolding, and into the courtyard where Moses was filmed. I remarked on a flowering tree in the courtyard, which the guide said was 'in bloom' because flowers were taped onto it.
More scaffolding, and then through a pair of very tall, very narrow doors, and onto the set for the Mummy Returns. At this point the guides stopped to let people take photos on the steps of this set. Our guide takes my camera and I strike a pose, and wait, and strike the same pose again. It takes my guide a minute to catch on, and then another minute before he stops laughing long enough to take this shot. By now, quite a crowd has stopped to watch. At the end of our 'photo shoot' he gives me the stage name of "Fatima Tagine" which I adopt for the rest of the day.
Around the next corner is the set for Tut and Asterix. I can see the Kingdom of Heaven set in the distance, and plead with the guide to take us there. It's not part of the tour and so he declines. I'm simultaneously disappointed at not being able to touch the walls of Jerusalem, and at the same time elated to see it in person, even from this distance. Past Cleopatra's milk bath pool, and an ark, and a catapult, and into a Chinese themed building that turns out to be the set for Kundun. I would later learn that Moroccan craftsmen built the sets, as well as props and costumes for this film. The King of Morocco is very supportive of the film industry and has several times lent the Moroccan Army as extras to epic films being produced here. This link takes you to additional information about the film industry in Morocco. The rest of my photos of the Atlas Studios are here.
After lunch in the studio restaurant, we return to the road and head to another UNESCO World Heritage site - the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou. This 17th century fortification is accessible via a wooden foot bridge which stretches over the Mellah River, surrounding a fortress built into the side of a mountain. This is another site made famous for its film credits which include Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and The Sheltering Sky. It's narrow walkways and staircases can lead you into a number of places, including both shops and personal homes. It is very easy to walk into someone's personal space by mistake (which I did), but I was very kindly corrected and pointed back towards the direction of the market areas. I did not make it all the way to the top of the hill at the center of this ksar, but even still, I was able to enjoy a beautiful view of the surrounding oasis, as you can see in my photos here.
Back on the road, I notice small square buildings every few miles, which I believe to be prayer rooms. Doug points out other prayer rooms on the tops of gas stations. The switchbacks here are pretty remarkable and some of the hairpin curves are so tight I'm surprised we can't see our own back license plate :) There aren't as many police checkpoints through this area, probably due to the number of detours that are set up to bypass road construction.
After what feels like a very long drive, we arrive in Taroudant, and a medina and a riad that would become a story of their very own ...